NFT Feature: A (Karaoke) Place to Call Home

This is a pretty long article about karaoke X-Posted (with pictures and nice formatting) from Not For Tourists.

The Seattle karaoke scene is a far cry from the stereotypical scenes of geeks or Japanese business men (not that they’re the same thing) poorly belting pop songs to half-empty bars. This is a city in which one has their pick of karaoke venues on literally any given day. But just because karaoke is rampant, doesn’t mean it’s all worth doing. Here’s where things gets really subjective. Allow me to provide some context:

I knew I was going to love karaoke well before I had the opportunity to try it. I’ve always been compelled to sing anyplace, anytime. It’s not because I have the voice of an angel. While my voice isn’t unpleasant to the ears, my range is extremely limited. But what I lack in talent, I make up for in enthusiasm.

In college, my slightly older boyfriend frequented karaoke bars with his friends. Being under 21, I was left to tend the hearth. They would return from the bars, invigorated by their performances, and regale me with hilarious tales about the audience and other singers. They were rock stars for 3 minutes at a time. My god, did I want a piece of that action.

When I finally came of age, I accompanied them to one of their favorite joints (a now defunct Tacoma dive which may or may not have been a mafia front) and signed myself up for my first moment of glory. I chose “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. It was sort of a disaster. I quickly learned that just because you like a song doesn’t mean it’s in your range.
The bar was virtually empty, but “singing” in front of 3 friends and 6 weird, wasted, possibly dangerous strangers was still a huge rush. I wanted more.

Eight years and countless songs later, I fancy myself somewhat of an aficionado; a connoisseur, of the karaoke arts. I’m still not the most talented singer, but I know my way around a mic and monitor. I’ve noted patterns amongst fellow karaoke-ers. Some of these patterns are amusing to me (everyone will always sing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”). Others annoy the poop out of me. Go on, sing “Love Shack” again. I double dare you. The prevalence of these patterns figures heavily into my criterion for rating a karaoke venue.

Like in any performance, a karaoke audience plays a significant role. From this, one might conclude that a packed bar is ideal. The 3 busiest karaoke destinations in Seattle offer it 7 days a week. At Ozzie’s in Lower Queen Anne, there are often lines to get in. Should you be lucky (or early) enough to get your number in, you will be singing to a packed house. The downside to Ozzie’s… Well if you ask me, it’s ALL downsides. For starters, good luck making the cut with the DJ. My friend actually bribes the DJ so that he doesn’t have to wait till last call, only to learn he’s not singing. If you DO manage to get called up, and you sing anything other than Bon Jovi, Britney Spears, or effing “Love Shack”, the seas of White Hats will meet you with blank stares. These people don’t know about the other Elvis (surname Costello). My fiancé’s performance of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” was too obscure for this crowd. And he practically does the White Stripes better than the Goth Albino Wondertwins themselves.

There is rarely a lull on the mic at the International District’s Bush Garden. But again, steady business does not good karaoke make. It is more difficult to get called up here than at Ozzie’s. Though the DJ actually REQUESTS bribes here, they don’t seem to work. The DJ simply looks at all his slips and decides which songs he wants to hear. Apparently what he wants to hear is 5 frighteningly inebriated girls shrieking “Take My Breath Away” into one microphone. He also wants to hear himself sing. A lot. I’ve been to Bush Garden 4 times and have only gotten to sing once. What’s more, the place is a magnet for bachelorette parties. I don’t have anything against bachelorettes per se, but one does tire of hearing a chorus of “Whooooo!” every 5 minutes.

Not every nightly karaoke smacks of Date Rape Nightmare. Though The Crescent on Capitol Hill is frat free, it is still not idyllic. The mic competition is fiercer in such a diminutive space. It’s also incredible how out of 5000 song choices, the same ones seem to come up over and over again. Friends who live nearby testify that they hear someone belting “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes almost every single night. They also say it’s never done well.

On the other hand, The Crescent has a fun, inclusive party vibe. Even if you don’t get to sing, you will still enjoy yourself. It’s a fine place to attempt a conversion of conscientious objectors to the practice.

Not all Seattle karaoke spots are hopping. You can arrive half an hour late to Mandarin Gate, a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall off Aurora, and still be able to get your kumbaya-yas out. On the other hand, it’s in a strip mall. Off of Aurora. Moreover, if there’s no one there to listen, you may as well be at home with your Fisher Price boom box.

The same goes for Mondays at the U-District’s Dante’s and Tuesdays at Purr on Capitol Hill. You do NOT want to be the only hope for the DJs as they hover over you while you pick songs. And you REALLY don’t want to see the dismayed look in their eyes when you head for the door leaving them with 2 hours of begging a smattering of disaffected bar patrons to sing.

The upside to places like this is that every once in a while, there ARE other singers. Some of these people are eccentric gems and my life is richer for having shared a room with them. There is a man who brings his OWN AC/DC karaoke CD to Mandarin Gate and positively brings the house down. I’ve never seen him sing any other music. At Dante’s, I once witnessed an adorably awkward performance of “Cracklin’ Rosie” by a bespectacled nebbish man in a Cosby sweater. Once he finished his song, he disappeared into the night. These are the treasured moments you just won’t find at an Ozzie’s.

While there are many adequate places in Seattle to scratch one’s singing itch, I’ve found it very difficult to find a place that meets all of my karaoke needs. Still, there are a few places that have come pretty close. The Rickshaw in Greenwood is one such place, offering karaoke 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. I spent Christmas here last year and I dare say it was my best one yet. The place was packed with holiday orphans enjoying delicious Chinese food and warming each other with the gift of rock.

Sunday night karaoke at The Twilight Exit on Capitol Hill can be hit or miss in terms of attendance, but when it hits, it’s a blast. There’s no stage as such, but there’s plenty of prancing room. The crowd is very supportive and really gets into it. In the divey atmosphere, you will feel like a rock star playing a secret show to your most loyal fans.

But my personal favorite is The Sunset Bowl Lounge in Ballard that offers karaoke Wednesday through Sunday. There are a million reasons to love this little bit of heaven in a 24-hour bowling alley (like the friendly, quirky staff and the wacky drink specials), but the 40,000 song state-of-the-art computerized system is a big one. Yes, that’s right. Forty THOUSAND songs. If they don’t have the song you wanted to sing, you didn’t really need to sing it. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, DJing is in the capable hands of the delightful Michele who has quite a set of pipes herself. And here’s the best part: The bar is always crowded during karaoke times, but most of the people there are just waiting for an available bowling lane. That means you have a captive audience with NO mic competition. Order a round of Speedy Gonzaleses from Nick and your crooning crew will be rocking on full throttle till last call.

Last but not least is Seattle’s Best Karaoke. This downtown karaoke company rents private rooms for small groups (just like in Lost in Translation). You can bring in food and liquor (with purchase of a banquet license) or have an all ages party. This is a great way to bring your mic-shy friends out of their shell. But that’s not all. They also rent their system out for larger parties and will deliver and set it up anywhere in town! For twenty-four hours of bliss, it’s very affordable, especially if party guests kick in a few bucks. My beau and I have rented the machine several times, including, but not limited to, our annual Scaraoke Halloween party. If our overflowing recycling bins are any indication, these parties are a raging success.
Undeniably, there is no shortage of karaoke in Seattle and, like anything; one person’s gold is another’s guano. Enough people have bewilderingly professed their love of Ozzie’s and Bush Garden to me to prove this idiom. I hope that you can use the very subjective information I have provided to find the perfect home for you and all your karaoke needs.

Happy singing.


The Perpetual Grecian: Identifiable by their baseball caps (men) and halter-tops (women) and their penchant for shouting “Whooooo!“ in response to any and everything. The males will sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” a-la “Old School”, Bon Jovi or “Sweet Caroline“. Every once in a while, they will surprise you with an ear-splitting rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep”. The women will sing “Love Shack” or turn any numbers of solo songs into a group sing along. Popular song choices for the females include “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

The Eccentric: Anyone from the nebbish man in the coke bottle glasses and Cosby sweater to the ambiguously gendered. Their song choices are impossible to predict and this, among more obvious qualities, makes them the most interesting karaoke attendees. They are usually just here to do one song and then leave.

The Veteran: These are mostly men, upwards of 65, sharply dressed and who, more often than not have fantastic voices. They won’t sing anything written after 1965.

The Country Crooner: Country might be one of the most popular genres of music in the United States. Who knew Kenney Chesney had SO MANY SONGS? If you’re not into country, these can become lost moments in your evening. Country Crooners stick around till last call and sing as many times as they are allowed.

The Hipster: Identifiable by their perfectly coiffed, died hair and ironic t-shirt, the Hipster will either sing a new wave song from the 80’s (theme to their very favorite John Hughes movie, perhaps?) or some Johnny Cash. If a songbook carries any Radiohead song other than “Creep”, they will be ecstatic.

The Theatre Geek: They sing show tunes.

The Left Fielder: I place myself and many of my singing companions in this category. We sing against type. Though I’ve spent much of my adult life arguing against the Goth label, I do wear an awful lot of black. So it must come as a surprise to the crowd when I pull out the Carpenters. If the crowd is more mainstream, I will do a surefire pleaser like Pat Benatar‘s “Heartbreaker” or some Billy Joel. My fiancé is tremendous with his renditions of David Bowie songs. My tall, slender white-girl friend is all about the 80’s rap songs. My emo musician friend sings Foreigner songs better than Foreigner.


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